Podcast #38, Part 2: This is Cairo

The Ard al-Lewwa neighborhood of Cairo (Google Maps)

Here is Part 2 of this week’s podcast. This was an experiment: Christopher Lydon of Radio Open Source is in town (with collaborator Mark Fonseca Rendeiro) and we invited them to join us and gathered some of our accomplished friends to discuss a topic that is close to all of our hearts: the city of Cairo and the shape it’s in today. Our conversation with architect and urban planner Omar El Nagati, blogger Mohamed El Shahed and writer/curator Sara Rifki was as rich, dense and meandering as the city itself.

Cairo in 2050, according to a masterplan adopted by the government

We discussed the meaning and potential of Cairo’s reigning informality; how to find a balance between local initiative and state planning and regulation; whether the Muslim Brotherhood has a different urban development vision than the Mubarak regime; and the many exciting ways that Egyptians are laying claim to public space today.

Show note

Podcast #38, Part2:

Decoder: Morsi, the judiciary and acts of sovereignty

We are happy to have another piece of legal analysis from Nathan Brown, on the legal issues at stake in the fight between the Egyptian judiciary and President Morsi.

Egyptian politics, for all its bare-knuckled power struggles, has also been strangely, almost bizarrely, legal. In fact, it has become increasingly so: President Morsi managed to handle the army but the judiciary is proving far more troublesome. In a country where those with gavels are more powerful than those with guns, it is not a surprise that contestants speak in legal language. And that language is growing more abstruse. What remains of the Constituent Assembly has drafted a new article on the Islamic shari`a that few people have the training to understand.

And now, in the midst of what looks like mortal combat between the presidency and Islamists on the one side and a set of judicial actors and non-Islamist forces on the other—a confrontation set off (predictably enough) by a series of presidential edicts published in the Official Gazette—we may be seeing the shape of a compromise emerging. It is hard to tell what that compromise is, however, not only because the political struggle is so knotty, but also because the language used is unfamiliar and abstract.

Read More

In Translation: Nader Fergany on the Egyptian draft constitution

These days in Egypt, plans always seem to be overtaken by events. This week’s translated article from the Arabic media — made possibly by the wonderful translations service Industry Arabic — was selected before the current political crisis over President Mohammed Morsi’s decree erupted on Thursday evening. Then, aside from the conflict in Gaza, the biggest issue in Egypt was the withdrawal of secular forces from the Constituent Assembly and the debate over the draft constitution. I chose the article by Nader Fergany out of a torrent of articles on this issue for two reasons: first, Fergany was the lead author of the first Arab Human Development Report, which (for all the criticism it received) I think can be fairly described as one of the intellectual underpinnings of the movement against dictatorship in the last decade. Secondly, Fergany (while he is a secularist, leftist and rather irascible nationalist) eschews the two typical responses you tended to have in the media, where partisans either said the draft constitution is great or it was a disaster.

The draft constitution is better than expected, but…

Nader Fergany, al-Ahram, 18 November 2012

The corruption of political life for an entire people, including the oppression and pauperization of its vast majority, is an abominable crime that I believe needs to be dealt with as a crime against humanity deserving of the most severe punishment. It shall not be allowed to forgotten, nor shall its perpetrators be tried solely within the confines of the country in which they corrupted politics.

The authoritarian regime—against which the great popular revolution rose up at the end of January 2011—sold the Egyptian people the most despicable forms of the corruption of political life for many decades, leaving in its wake a deep heritage of oppression, poverty, and social injustice that accumulated until the people could bear it no longer. They rose up in hopes of securing the noble ends for which the demands of the revolution were drawn up: freedom, equitability, social justice, and human dignity. Unfortunately, the transitional period’s government was intent on acquitting those who were responsible for the corruption of political life before the revolution from having to face the punishments necessary for just retribution, which has contributed to post-revolution corruption in political life. This corruption has resulted in a state of confusion and legislative and political blunders as a result of the path the elections took before the constitution, which is reflected in the controversy and disputes around the Constituent Assembly and the draft of the constitution prepared by the assembly.

Read More

Podcast #38, Part 1: History on repeat

A friend here in Cairo recently told me she felt history was repeating itself all around her: a new Egyptian train tragedy; bodies of Palestinian children being dug out of the rubble of Gaza as Israel carries out yet another bombardment; protesters and police facing off again, on year later, in Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

On Thursday evening President Mohamed Morsi issued a decree that involved some repetitions of its own: he sacked the corrupt public prosecutor (again, after a first failed attempt); he ordered the re-trial of policemen and former regime figures. Most strikingly, he gave himself and the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly immunity from all judicial challenges. “Don’t worry” Morsi repeated half a dozen times during a speech on Friday — the sweeping new powers he has given himself (which include the power to take any necessary action to defend the revolution and national security) are only temporary, and will not be misused, he said. But the thousands of protesters who had already come out and those who had attacked several offices of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party were indeed worried, and fuming, at their sense that history is repeating itself: Morsi is an elected president, but he has given himself more powers than even Mubarak had.

In the first installment of a two-part podcast (we had planned one on a different topic before the crisis), Issandr and Ashraf discuss the weekend’s events. The second part will be up soon.

Show Notes

Podcast #38:

Questions about the crisis over Morsi's decree

I am busy with a project that is taking all my time, but these are the questions I am asking myself regarding the crisis over Morsi's 22 November decree:

1. Does Morsi feel he could back back down on some of the provisions of the decree without damaging his credibility as leader?

2. Is the opposition willing to make demands that are not absolute, like canceling the whole decree or having Morsi step down (which no political leader demands but the crowds in Tahrir chant.)

3. Will the judges' strike, which began in Alexandria and Beheira governorate, spread to a national judicial strike?

4. What are the prospects towards a more general strike?

5. What is the military thinking? Does it believe it could ultimately intervene, claiming to defend the constitutional order or the revolution, and if so how?

6. Will the US and EU move to freeze their recently announced aid packages, citing lack of good governance? What does this mean for the IMF deal?

7. What are the prospects for escalation on either side? We've seen FJP offices being attacked and Muslim Brothers ordered to surround, somewhat threateningly, the Cairo High Court, as well as tasked with defending their branches (a task which should fall to the police) — how quickly could this turn into direct confrontations on a larger scale?

8. Are the dynamics here winner take all — i.e. either Morsi backs down or his decree remains intact?

Feel free to add your own questions in the comments...

What's a possible way out of Egypt's crisis?

Egypt’s Morsi: Back Down or Crackdown? | Atlantic Council

Tarek Radwan writes:

Given such a charged climate, Morsi is left with a choice: either back down or crackdown. If the president decides to rescind his declaration, he risks appearing weak to his Islamist supporters in the face of a largely secular popular opposition (though some moderate Islamists, such as those from Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh’s Strong Party have joined in the protests). If he decides to crack down on popular protests and political opposition figures, he risks a severe escalation in popular anger. A crackdown could also hurt the already ailing economy and threaten the country’s stability even further in the face of an impending IMF loan that Morsi hopes will open the floodgates of other international loans and foreign investment. 

With neither choice offering a good 'out' to the current crisis, one should expect something that lies somewhere between either extreme. In true Muslim Brotherhood pragmatism, Morsi will first try to calm the situation – as evidenced by initial attempts from Prime Minister Hisham Qandil in his public statement asking protesters to accept the president’s decision and “move on.”. If that fails, and if the judiciary finds momentum in its calls to strike, Morsi will likely turn to negotiating with prominent judges and opposition leaders. In the end, a settlement that neither rescinds the decree but works on a solution that negates absolute control seems the most logical endpoint based on previous patterns of behavior when faced with enormous public backlash. 

The problem is that neither Morsi's camp nor the opposition is yet articulating a position whereby a compromise could be reached: yes to the more positive parts of the decree about securing justice for police victims and extending the deadline for a new constitution, no to absolute power for Morsi against judicial overview, and perhaps a compromise on the matter of the dissolution of the Shura Council and Constituent Assembly. 

Links 19-24 November 2012

  • The Good, The Bad, The Elazul: Egypt: A "Civil War" is here.
    Interesting speculation on the MB's numbers game in Cairo and governorates.
  • Meet Egypt’s Mr Mursi: a president without checks and balances
    level-headed, comprehensive rundown on #Morsi declaration by @hahellyer
  • BBC - Radio 4 iPM - 24/11/2012
    BBC's Jehad Mashrrawi on his baby Omar killed this week. "He only knew how 2 smile"
  • Raid on Egyptian Island Fuels Discontent With Army, Morsi - Al-Monitor: the Pulse of the Middle East
    Deadly army raid on Nile island provokes memories of the days of Mubarak:
  • Press release: EU should freeze European financial assistance to Egypt
    EU should freeze European financial assistance to Egypt: EUMP @MarietjeD66
  • Muftah » Freedom of Expression Under Threat – an Open Letter from Ganzeer
  • Syrian Refugees Struggle in Egypt - Al-Monitor
    Girls marrying for financial support to families.
  • Absolute Power: Morsi’s Decree Stuns Egyptians - Al-Monitor
    Bassem Sabry.
  • English text of Morsi's Constitutional Declaration - Ahram Online
  • Mali : L'Algérie ne veut pas d'«une guerre dans son voisinage immédiat»
  • Ghozlan: Morsi Constitutional Declaration in Line with Popular Will and Revolutionary Demands - Ikhwanweb
  • Read More

    Hamas normalized, Israel marginalized

    Adam Shatz · Why Israel Didn’t Win · LRB 24 November 2012

    I have the same read — as distasteful as it is to call winners and losers, Hamas (not Gazans) came out a winner in this war, Israel a loser:

    Israeli leaders lamented for years that theirs was the only democracy in the region. What this season of revolts has revealed is that Israel had a very deep investment in Arab authoritarianism. The unravelling of the old Arab order, when Israel could count on the quiet complicity of Arab big men who satisfied their subjects with flamboyant denunciations of Israeli misdeeds but did little to block them, has been painful for Israel, leaving it feeling lonelier than ever. It is this acute sense of vulnerability, even more than Netanyahu’s desire to bolster his martial credentials before the January elections, that led Israel into war.

    Hamas, meanwhile, has been buoyed by the same regional shifts, particularly the triumph of Islamist movements in Tunisia and Egypt: Hamas, not Israel, has been ‘normalised’ by the Arab uprisings.

    . . .

    The Arab world is changing, but Israel is not. Instead, it has retreated further behind Jabotinsky’s ‘iron wall’, deepening its hold on the Occupied Territories, thumbing its nose at a region that is at last acquiring a taste of its own power, exploding in spasms of high-tech violence that fail to conceal its lack of a political strategy to end the conflict. Iron Dome may shield Israel from Qassam rockets, but it won’t shield it from the future.

    Worth adding that in my opinion Morsi came  a short-term winner and Egypt a probable long-term loser.

    From Gaza to Manfalut

    Mounting Challenges Must Make Morsi Regret His Days in Egypt's Opposition - NYTimes.com

    It strikes me that I never linked to my post last week on Latitude, written before Morsi made his decree and the Gaza ceasefire was implemented. Obviously the headline seems a little weird now although perhaps the point about being in opposition being somewhat easier holds — I think. The piece is about the overwhelming challenges facing the Morsi administration and the Qandil cabinet. It is relevant to the previous situation in that Morsi miscalculated his political capital last Thursday and over-reached.

    Morsi cuts the Gordian knot

    To break the deadlock, Morsi wields a clumsy hammer - The National

    My piece on Morsi's decree and the aftermath — here's the conclusion:

    Were Mr Morsi a beloved national leader of the stature of a Nelson Mandela, he might have pulled it off. But he is the backup candidate of an organisation - the Muslim Brotherhood - mistrusted by many of his countrymen. He was elected (narrowly) by a coalition brought together by the fact that his opponent was worse. And he made this decision at a time of unprecedented polarisation - over the constitution and religion's role within it, over the performance of the cabinet, and indeed over the poor excuse for a transitional framework to democracy that the country inherited from 16 months of disastrous military rule. Mr Morsi's political capital is simply not as plentiful as he seems to believe, as the furious reaction by opposition leaders and protesters on Friday showed.

    The question now is what next. Mr Morsi and his supporters say the move is necessary, and the opposition is being irresponsible, bent on sabotaging anything he does out of anti-Islamist spite. That is partly true: there are many, from conservatives nostalgic of the Mubarak era to angry revolutionaries, who simply cannot stomach that Mr Morsi is president and his Muslim Brotherhood are the dominant political power. Opposition groups, the revolutionary movement and civil society feel cheated by the Islamists' majoritarian view of democracy, and they are also right to be worried about the Islamists' views on the application of Sharia and their lack of enthusiasm for civil liberties.

    The central problem in Egyptian politics today is trust, or the absence thereof - and Mr Morsi has not invested much time in creating more of it since elected. This new wave of protests is the price he is paying for his negligence.

    Cutting the Gordian knot, ultimately, is cheating. Getting away with it depends on being perceived as either wise or powerful. The next few weeks will test Mr Morsi on both counts.

    Analysis: Morsi’s Auto-Golpe

    The analysis below has been contributed by Nathan Brown, who has not yet eaten his turkey and therefore can react to today’s big news from Egypt — whereas I am in post-turkey coma. But I largely agree with him: this is a move that might be pulled off by an overwhelmingly popular national leader, but goes a little too far for someone elected by only 51% of the electorate in an ever-more divided country.

    In a series of moves, President Morsi has used the nearly absolute authority he assumed last August to try to put that absolute authority beyond reach, at least on a temporary basis.

    He may very well succeed. The potential opponents to his move are legion but they are also divided and many are politically clueless. By careful timing and a series of carrots for various actors, Morsi may have outmaneuvered any opposition. Internationally, he has just won plaudits for his role in ending the fighting between Israel and Hamas; that likely offers him a bit of insulation from international criticism and some vague domestic capital for showing Egypt’s centrality. Offering cash to the revolution’s victims and retrials for their attackers seems designed to placate street activists. Non-Islamist forces in the Constituent Assembly are seeing one of their fundamental demands—an extension on the clock—met. And an obvious source of opposition—the judiciary, whose role is dramatically evicted from the transition process—may be a bit confused on how to respond. After all, it is leaders of the “judicial independence” movement from within their ranks that appears to be leading some of Morsi’s charge (Morsi’s vice president, the minister of justice, and the new prosecutor general are all members of that clique that stood so resolutely against the old regime’s judicial manipulations).

    And the substance of the decisions is not all bad news for those who hope for a democratic transition. The prosecutor general who has been dismissed was an old-regime holdover trusted by few people. The Constituent Assembly, constantly threatened with dissolution by court order, was working in a manner that seemed to deepen divisions. Non-Islamists were having trouble breaking themselves of the habit of praying for foreign, military, or judicial intervention and Islamists had depleted the very limited supply of amity they had brought to the transition. Trials of old regime elements had clearly gone awry and victims of military and security force brutality been abandoned. Morsi’s moves work to address these issues.

    But whatever the desirability of elements of these decisions, today’s overall message might be summed up: “I, Morsi, am all powerful. And in my first act as being all powerful, I declare myself more powerful still. But don’t worry—it’s just for a little while.”

    What could stop him in the short term? Morsi has over-reached before (such as the first time he tried to rid himself of the prosecutor general). And his August bid for power worked in part because he used the power he assumed in such a restrained manner (until today, that is).

    This time, ambitious and assertive courts could tell him no. Various political non-Islamist forces could line up against him. Neutral institutions and professional associations could cry foul. But only if they do so in unison, are they likely to be able to force Morsi to back down or to find a way to temper his power. And there is no easy venue for them to carry out their struggle. Those who oppose these moves need not only unity but a strategy. And that has never been their strong suit.

    And if they do fail, then Egypt’s best hope for democracy may be a Morsi metamorphasis into an Egyptian Cincinnatus. Perhaps he will use his authority to protect a process that will build a functioning democratic and pluralistic system. That is not impossible. But it’s an odd way to build a democracy.

    Calling on Hillary Clinton to do the right thing

    A group of Americans citizens residing to Cairo are taking advantage of US Secretary of State Clinton's visit to Egypt to request for a meeting. We want to communicate to her that US statements on the conflict in Gaza, including her own, have been insufficient in pressuring both sides to cease fire. Having lived through regional previous conflicts in which the US issued one-sided statements, we believe it's urgent to correct this stance as soon as possible.

    We are modest in our ambitions. This is not about assigning blame in the conflict or deciding who started it — even if many differ with stated US government positions. It's about getting Washington to do its utmost to stop this senseless killing that is mostly affecting civilians.

    It is about getting a clear, unequivocal statement out of the Obama administration that BOTH sides should ceasefire and that the US is not giving Israel carte blanche to conduct whatever military operations it wants to. We believe this is crucial at this point where the hopes for a ceasefire appear to be deteriorating and the attacks on civilians on both sides are escaling. We believe this is crucial because Egypt should be given all the possible backing in its efforts to secure a ceasefire. We believe this crucial because the US should not be giving the impression, particularly at a time of region-wide turmoil, that it is giving license to Israel to continue its attacks even as it calls on Hamas to stop its own. This is too reminiscent of the disastrous policies pursued by the Bush administration during the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war and the 2009 Gaza conflict.

    We have sent a letter to Secretary Clinton which she should receive as she lands in Cairo, any time now. And we have opened this petition for US citizens in Egypt to sign. 

    We are taking this step because alternatives we considered — such as staging a peaceful protest at the US Embassy are impractical considering the current tension around Tahrir Square and Mohammed Mahmoud St. and the heightened security presence around the embassy in the last few months. We hope she will receive a small delegation that will explain our position and get her feedback.

    If you're an American living in Egypt, please sign our petition.

    When Will the Economic Blockade of Gaza End?

    ↪ When Will the Economic Blockade of Gaza End? - Robert Wright - The Atlantic

    President Obama and Bibi Netanyahu are on the same page when it comes to the justification for Israel's bombardment of Gaza. Netanyahu : "No country in the world would agree to a situation in which its population lives under a constant missile threat." Obama: "There's no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders."

    It's true that if, say, Canada were lobbing missiles into the US, the US wouldn't tolerate it. But here's another thing the US wouldn't tolerate: If Canada imposed a crippling economic blockade, denying America the import of essential goods and hugely restricting American exports. That would be taken as an act of war, and America would if necessary respond with force--by, perhaps, lobbing missiles into Canada.

    Gazan Youth Manifesto for Change

    Via Mondoweiss, where you can read the full thing — Update: this is from January 2011, but it certainly feels relevant to the moment and their Facebook page is very much alive. 


    Fuck Hamas. Fuck Israel. Fuck Fatah. Fuck UN. Fuck UNWRA. Fuck USA! We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community! We want to scream and break this wall of silence, injustice and indifference like the Israeli F16’s breaking the wall of sound; scream with all the power in our souls in order to release this immense frustration that consumes us because of this fucking situation we live in; we are like lice between two nails living a nightmare inside a nightmare, no room for hope, no space for freedom. We are sick of being caught in this political struggle; sick of coal dark nights with airplanes circling above our homes; sick of innocent farmers getting shot in the buffer zone because they are taking care of their lands; sick of bearded guys walking around with their guns abusing their power, beating up or incarcerating young people demonstrating for what they believe in; sick of the wall of shame that separates us from the rest of our country and keeps us imprisoned in a stamp-sized piece of land; sick of being portrayed as terrorists, homemade fanatics with explosives in our pockets and evil in our eyes; sick of the indifference we meet from the international community, the so-called experts in expressing concerns and drafting resolutions but cowards in enforcing anything they agree on; we are sick and tired of living a shitty life, being kept in jail by Israel, beaten up by Hamas and completely ignored by the rest of the world.

    In defense of Egypt's Gaza spin

    This interesting NYT report by David Kirkpatrick tries to spin the story here as Egypt defending Hamas while brokering. 

    CAIRO — While holding itself out as an honest broker for truce talks between Israel and Hamas over the Gaza conflict, Egypt’s new government sought on Monday to plunge into the battle over international public opinion on behalf of the Palestinian cause — an arena where the Israelis, more experienced in the world of the free press and democratic politics, have historically dominated.

    In Egypt’s most concerted effort to win more global public support for the Palestinians, advisers to Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who has been an outspoken supporter of Hamas, invited foreign correspondents in Cairo to a background briefing at which a senior Egyptian official sought to blame Israel for the conflict while at the same time maintaining Egypt’s role as an intermediary pressing both sides for peace. “We are against any bloodshed,” the official said repeatedly, arguing that Egypt sought stability and individual freedom for all in the region.

    Read More

    Nevermind the deep state, here's the shallow but pervasive state

    Egypt's State Constitutes Itself - By Nathan J. Brown | The Middle East Channel

    Brown on the Egyptian corporatism and the degree to which state institutions have gotten to define their own position in Egypt's constitutional debate, in negotiation with the MB:

    But this is no long-term solution. It rests in part by awarding critical institutions more autonomy from external oversight than is appropriate in a democratic system. So the short-term problem may be too much autonomy for these bodies. Over the long-term, there may be the precise opposite problem: the autonomy of many bodies will rest on implementing legislation (for instance, the provisions for the Supreme Constitutional Court allow the current law to be maintained but do not prevent future changes in that law). A series of Islamist majorities might chip away at the freedom that state bodies now seem to think they may be achieving through the constitution.

    So in the end, if things work badly, the result might look a bit more like the Mubarak regime than anyone now wants. Mubarak's authoritarianism was presidential and despotic to be sure, but it was not based on having the presidency micro-manage the affairs of various state bodies. Instead it was based on placing those bodies in reliable hands, coopting key members, and reining them in if they suddenly discovered ways to act too autonomously of presidential will.

    If Egyptians are not careful they will slip back into that pattern. In the end, there is simply no substitute for healthy democratic competition.

    What Hamas wants (mostly from Egypt?)

    Gaza Clash Escalates With Deadliest Israeli Strike - NYTimes.com

    David Kirkpatrick reports:

    Reda Fahmy, a member of Egypt’s upper house of Parliament and of the nation’s dominant Islamist party, who is following the talks, said Hamas’s position was just as unequivocal. “Hamas has one clear and specific demand: for the siege to be completely lifted from Gaza,” he said. “It’s not reasonable that every now and then Israel decides to level Gaza to the ground, and then we decide to sit down and talk about it after it is done. On the Israeli part, they want to stop the missiles from one side. How is that?”

    He added: “If they stop the aircraft from shooting, Hamas will then stop its missiles. But violence couldn’t be stopped from one side.”

    Hamas’s aggressive stance in the cease-fire talks is the first test of the group’s belief that the Arab Spring and the rise in Islamist influence around the region have strengthened its political hand, both against Israel and against Hamas’s Palestinian rivals, who now control the West Bank with Western backing.

    It also puts intense new pressure on President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who was known for his fiery speeches defending Hamas and denouncing Israel. Mr. Morsi must now balance the conflicting demands of an Egyptian public that is deeply sympathetic to Hamas and the Palestinian cause against Western pleadings to help broker a peace and Egypt’s need for regional stability to help revive its moribund economy.

    Indeed, the Egyptian-led cease-fire talks illustrate the diverging paths of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the original Egyptian Islamist group. Hamas has evolved into a more militant insurgency and is labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, while the Brotherhood has effectively become Egypt’s ruling party. Mr. Fahmy said in an interview in March that the Brotherhood’s new responsibilities required a step back from its ideological cousins in Hamas, and even a new push to persuade the group to compromise.

    Lifting the blockade would be unlikely to happen on the Israeli side, so it's essentially about the Egyptian side. Morsi did not want to be tackling this so early, and any solution will be quite complicated. He has not lifted the blockade thus far, although he could have, and that's because the Egyptian security establishment is nervous about being made responsible for Gaza — and the idea that the Israelis will just dump it on Egypt's lap and make Cairo responsible for it. Can't blame them on that.

    Also see this.